Unsolicited mass email from the Mayor of Seattle

by brian d foy

Earlier this week, I noticed a couple emails from the Mayor of Seattle in my inbox. That's not so unusual. I get lots of mail from high sounding offices, although most of them seem to be former heads-of-state from Africa. What if the mail was real though? Is unsolicited mail from our governments as unwanted as unsolicited mail from the companies we have "an existing business relationship"? Should we have to opt-in to this sort of mail, and how does that work if the Mayor really needs to get the word out?

I was curious about the email, titled "Alaskan Way Tunnel Open House" and what sort of scam that might be, but the email looked genuine. I checked the Seattle Mayor's website, and indeed there is an open house about the Alaskan Way Tunnel. Apparently some shipworm is eating through the tunnel walls, and the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake damaged the viaduct and the seawall. The city needs to do some work and they want community input. The email text is an edited version of the Mayor's web page for the tunnel.

Why did I get this email though? I live in Chicago. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing to send to potential visitors: "Don't drive through our crumbling tunnel!".

I figured I'd call the Mayor and ask him about it. Heck, it's raining in Chicago and that puts me in a Seattle mood anyway. I wanted to find out since it's not often that I can actually put a name on the person (Greg Nickels) who sent me unsolicited mail, but by nature of his public office, I can even put a face on it. Indeed, i can even see him throwing the first pitch at a Mariner's game and posing with Mariner's catcher Ben Davis. Why doesn't Chicago's Mayor Daley have some action shots of him with the World Series Champion White Sox? Before I even start I'm think Seattle's mayor is cooler than mine. He's got better pictures and he knows about email (even if the etiquette is still catching up). Although he doesn't have RSS or Atom feeds, he does have streaming video and audio of his weekly call-in shows.

I called the mayor's office and spoke to Sharon Thomas. She confirmed that the mail was genuine and that anyone who had ever emailed the Mayor's office received the mail.

A long time ago, I wrote to the City of Seattle's Department of Transportation to verify some facts about their bike paths I had read in Bicycling magazine. I got a nice reply that answered my questions and thought that was the end of it. Apparently not. Now I'm in the list of people who have written to the Mayor's office. Anyone who has ever emailed the Mayor's Office is on this list and got that email.

They got it twice, in fact. My first message was on February 14 at 2:16 pm PDT, with my old email address in the To: field, and the second one later the same day at 5:21 PDT, with "undisclosed-recipients" in the To: field. The body of the message looked the same save for the first line that said "Sorry for the duplication but please disregard the previous message." A diff on the message body confirmed that, aside from whitespace, the messages are the same.

Acccording to Ms. Thomas, the Department of Transportation asked for the list of email addresses, and the Mayor's office gave them the list. She couldn't tell me who in the Department of Transportation asked for it, though, or who decided to try this. If this was the first time, a limited trial might have been in order. I can't be too judgemental though, because I've certainly done stupid things with some of the lists that I've managed. Computers and networks make it really easy for orders or magnitude more people to notice a mistake, and even easier to complain about it.

Ms. Thomas is also the one who apparently has the job of apologizing to anyone who responded negatively to the email, and I found a message from her replying to my old email addresses autoresponder which tells people I don't get mail there anymore. I'm curious how many times she had to send that same message. Out of a city with around half a million people, how many have emailed the mayor? I wonder how Seattle stacks up to other cities for the level of involvement of their citizenry in digital democracy.

To her credit, she was sincerely apologetic and realized the mistake of sending mail to everyone, and said that I should talk to their communications people. They weren't available, though, but she offered to remove my email from the list. When I asked her about all of the other people who didn't ask to be on the Mayor's mailing list, she said that she removed the addresses for the people who responded to complain. That is, if you don't want to be on the list and didn't complain, the norm in dealing with spam so that the bad guys don't know they have a good address, then you are still on this list. She again assured me that this was a one time thing, and from the response they've received, I'm sure that's true.

So, what to think of all this? Spam is usually some predatory or nefarious thing with a purposedly anonymous actor at the other end. This mail is about a legitimate subject from a real person whose office I can actually call, and they'll talk to me about the mail. I'm a bit annoyed that the City of Seattle wasn't careful about managing their lists and not using an opt-in method, but they also want more involvement in community projects and the things that affect the people of Seattle.

Is unsolicited mass email from our representatives spam?


2006-02-16 13:33:32
Not Really Spam
Without a commercial purpose, it's difficult to call this spam. That is, there's a legitimate, non-malicious purpose to sending people this information.

That doesn't mean that the means of gathering these addresses is intelligent or effective, though.

2006-02-18 14:23:55
Yes It's Really Spam
That's why I prefer the definition of "spam" being any unsolicited BULK email, not unsolicited COMMERCIAL email. Even though the mayor's office won't be earning money to send this email, he's trying to earn political capital (which may even by convertible to cash in the future).

What the Mayor's office did was wrong. Maybe only "kicking a puppy" wrong, but still wrong.

2006-02-20 22:29:19
Why send it to everyone who emailed them?
You live in Chicago - Even if you are interested in the leaky tunnel, why would you be eligible to have a say about spending seattle's tax dollars ?
I think its a good idea for governments to communicate via email (especially if its saving my tax dollars), but it's a half-arsed way to start building the list....
maybe they could put a request for email address on their rates notices, or publicise a web-site that generates a confirmation email or some other 'proper' method....

PS when are you guys gunna get a preview function on here ?
2006-02-22 02:23:29
Replies are not SPAM
You e-mailed them first. Granted, you probably did not e-mail them regarding this particular topic, but you did open a line of communication, and they are merely continuing the conversation on a different topic. I don't think that qualifies as SPAM at all.
2006-02-22 15:36:58
Replies are not SPAM
I never mailed the Mayor of Seattle, though. He got my address from the Seattle Department of Transportation.